No one ever accused Dario Argento of being too interested in plot details. In an Argento film, the story serves the visuals, not the other way around. With Opera (1987), the giallo master directed his last truly great film and over 30 years later has yet to repeat the artistic success of his stellar early work.
Considering the turmoil in his personal life at the time of the production, it’s amazing the film works as well as it does. There’s a very real possibility that, like Spielberg and Lucas with Temple of Doom (1984), personal problems can translate into dark imagery. Although he worked steadily until 2012 with his poorly-received Dracula 3D, virtually nothing can compare to his slate of films beginning in 1970 and ending with Opera. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet all represent fine work from a young and hungry filmmaker, but Deep Red (1975) is the film that can truly be called a masterpiece. His follow-up is likely his most popular and accessible film, Suspiria (1977). Did he peak with Suspiria? Possibly, but his work in the eighties is still quite strong. Inferno (1980) is a slight step down but still highly inventive and represents the second part of the “Three Mothers” trilogy. Tenebrae (1982) is loads of fun with a gleefully gory finale. Phenomena (1985), a personal favorite of mine, has a few rough effects shots but is actually quite moving and once again, contains a satisfying and unexpected ending. He also contributed to the screenplays for Lamberto Bava’s rousing Demons (1985) and Demons 2 (1986). With Opera, Argento would indulge in his usual predilections: A maniac killer, an innocent, waifish brunette heroine, a score combining elegant themes, in this case arias, with punk rock/metal, wonderfully insane kills, and of course, remarkably fluid camera work.
Up to this point in his career, Argento rarely worked with the same cinematographer more than twice. This time, he’d employ the considerable talents of Oscar winning DP Ronnie Taylor, the skilled camera operator of several huge projects and who would go on to lens three Richard Attenborough films (Gandhi, A Chorus Line, Cry Freedom) and shoot for fellow mad men Ken Russell (Tommy) and Alejandro Jodorowsky (The Rainbow Thief). Argento, perhaps bolstered by a need to one-up himself, goes all-out, his camera snaking its way through the theatre (including a few shots that recall Deep Red), apartments, and air ducts with remarkable smoothness. Of course, the Steadicam had been around for over ten years now, but the camera (operated by Antonio Scaramuzza), often being used subjectively as the POV of the killer, rarely stops moving and feels alive in a way few other horror films that use the same technique can even hope to achieve. There are extreme close-ups of a raven’s eye, often reflecting the action at hand and foreshadowing their ever-observant nature. What was likely a logistical nightmare but which turns out to be extremely exciting are the crane shots, sometimes representing the raven’s POV as it swoops and spins above a terrified audience. I’m a big believer in camera work that serves the story, not just because it looks cool. Even the famous crane shot in Tenebrae is neat but it barely moves the plot along. I once asked a DP why he did a particularly uninspired crane shot at the end of a short film, to which he replied, “Because we could.” Being a fan of Martin Scorsese, I love bravura camera work, and although Opera’s shots are self-indulgent, they’re just too infectious and dazzling not to love.
The plot (what plot? No, there's a plot. This isn't Inferno.) revolves around Betty (Cristina Marsillach), an understudy for an opera company putting on a production of Verdi’s Macbeth. After the diva star of the show is injured in an accident(?), she’s tapped to take over the lead role of Lady Macbeth. Although triumphant on stage, she has less luck elsewhere as everyone she becomes involved with ends up being brutally murdered. I joke when I question whether there's a plot. There certainly is one, basic as it may be, but there are logic leaps and contrivances that will make your head spin if you think about them for too long. For instance, she witnesses (boy, does she witness, more on that later) a murder, but leaves the scene of the crime and merely makes an anonymous phone call. Why not explain the entire situation to the police? Her director(Ian Charleston) even asks this question, to which she simply replies that she didn’t know what to do. She’s never brought in for a proper interrogation(though this may be due to the lead inspector’s involvement) and the extended finale, which Argento refused to cut but I do feel is extraneous, feels slapdash and contrived, although the setting is practically The Sound of Music, so seeing a brutal murder against that backdrop is pretty amusing.
The killer turns out to be the lead inspector Santini (Urbano Barberini), revealing a convoluted backstory where he was her mother’s lover and murdered young women. Betty witnessed one of these deaths but has repressed the memory. The lead-up to this revelation is merely a platform on which Argento can put his macabre imagination to work.
We watch Argento films for their scenes of over-the-top violence and he delivers with Opera. The twist here is that for some of these scenes, Betty is forced to watch by being tied up and having needles taped below her eyes, forcing her to keep them open at all costs. Starting with a death by coat hook a la Midnight Express, we move on to a very convincing stab to the throat with a very thick blade. This may not be the most inventive death, but the sudden appearance of the killer is startling along with the knife entering the throat of Betty’s lover, post-coitus. A far cry from the bright red liquid of the 70’s, the blood here looks just right.
Next to go is the costume mistress, Giulia (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni), although before this, some surprisingly crafty and vindictive ravens are taken out while the killer does some serious damage to Betty’s costume. Giulia discovers a gold bracelet in the costume with faded words printed on it. She searches for her magnifying glass for an exceedingly long period of time. It truly comes off as odd, as if it must take place in real time, when any other movie would have shown perhaps 10 seconds of searching and then she leaves the room to look elsewhere. Betty is tied up once again, but Giulia is tougher than she looks and even gets her licks in by smashing the killer with an iron. Curiosity gets the best of her, though, and after un-masking the killer, she’s strangled by the suddenly conscious madman. Unfortunately, a simple strangulation isn’t enough, because, and this is really rather silly, she swallows the bracelet. What’s a guy gonna do? He has to operate, so as Dennis Farina told Vinnie Jones in Snatch, he has to “open her up.”
I get a distinct Polly Platt vibe with the exit of Daria Nicolodi, in her final Argento film (until Mother of Tears, 2007) appearance as Mira, Betty’s agent. The director loses a wife/collaborator who has had a major influence on his best work and after her exit, the work suffers. It’s no surprise that even though Bogdanovich had left Platt prior to Paper Moon, she had still done extensive work on the film, which would turn out to be Bogdanovich’s last great film for quite a while. Nicolodi is very good here and her death scene is not necessarily unique, but has quite the build-up. After an Inspector Soavi (played by future Cemetery Man director Michele Soavi) may or may not be who he says he is, Mira refuses to let the “detective” in. He shows both his badge and his gun, actually having a conversation with her when all of a sudden BANG! A bullet, represented through an insert of what is likely an oversized bullet-shaped object, blasts through the eye hole, straight through Mira’s eye, and through the back of her head. What’s clever about this scene is that the killer was just toying with her the whole time and you actually believe he may be the inspector, so the sudden shot is unexpected.
Remember the ravens? Well, they never forget, apparently. The director has a plan to release the ravens into the theatre for the next performance so they can find the killer in the audience. Through the dynamite camera work, the ravens soar over the audience and find their target. Somehow, Inspector Santini escapes, though missing an eye (a lot of eye trauma in this movie), and absconds with Betty to the basement, where he ties her up and tries to make her kill him even though her hands are practically immobile. He sets the room, full of decaying sheet music, on fire and supposedly burns to death, while Betty uses the gun to shoot her ropes and escape. It’s a satisfying conclusion that would have been an acceptable ending. I’m all for the auteur theory and Argento getting his vision on the screen, but the real ending feels like a coda, where Santini faked his own death, kills the maid and the director, but is apprehended at the last second by the authorities, whose presence is explained away by a few throwaway lines but doesn’t make up for the fact that two more people have died.
Argento’s music choices are great, as usual. The apartment scene where Betty tries to muffle her movements with music adds real momentum and the tracking shots around the VERY fancy apartment work wonders for the atmosphere. I love his use of metal music during the death scenes, although I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t think it makes the scenes remotely scarier. In fact, I’d say it diminishes the impact, but it’s so Argento that you just go with it.
It’s difficult to rate acting performances when most of them are dubbed, but everyone at least appears to be doing their jobs admirably. Ian Charleston, modeling his performance off of Argento himself, is quite good and even arouses suspicion for being in the vicinity of some of the murders. This is still Argento’s show and it’s unfortunate that things would go mostly downhill from this point onward. What a run he had though, and perhaps someday, he’ll wow us again.